The haunting image of a girl's dress still on its hanger on the ceiling of the car deck. It was probably placed there by divers, but is a stark reminder of those who lost their lives when the Salem Express sank in 1991
THERE WAS A MOMENT WHEN a ghost’s hand reached into my chest and squeezed my heart. The sensation sent a lump into my throat and a shiver down my spine.
I was deep inside the hold of the Salem Express and, hanging above a bag bearing the words “Happy Journey” was a child’s dress. Pale, lacy and delicate, it was a stark reminder of how many ordinary people perished when the Red Sea ferry struck a reef within view of its destination port of Safaga.
The 1991 sinking of the Salem Express saw a horrific loss of life. The ferry was carrying Muslims on their way back from their pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Known as the Hajj, this annual event is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Also aboard were Egyptian workers returning home to see their families. They carried items hard to find in Egypt at that time. Tourism had yet to arrive on its shores in a big way and this part of the Red Sea was short on prosperity.
All of that has changed now, of course, and an infrastructure for foreign visitors has grown up around the bay in which the vessel lies.
People’s everyday lives have changed indescribably, while the victims of the Salem Express have been frozen in time.
The vessel was said to be severely overloaded, so no-one knows the real death toll. The captain had decided to use the faster route from Jeddah to Safaga, which took the ship south of Hyndman Reef and north of Kennedy Shoal.
According to the subsequent Lloyd’s report, the route wasn’t sanctioned for night passage, yet the vessel was there shortly before midnight.
That was the captain’s first piece of bad luck; his second was an oncoming storm that would have made him anxious to reach port.
His final piece of bad luck was that the ferry was, unbeknown to him and his crew, almost a kilometre east of her intended position. She slammed nose-first into the cluster of corals that make up Hyndman Reef, a few miles off the port of Safaga.
The glittering lights of the town and those of the phosphate port to the south would have been starkly visible against the dark, empty desert.
But both places were too far to reach, and the impact forced the bow door ajar, sending the Red Sea into her hold. The impact is said to have hastened the ferry’s demise.
Lloyd’s reported that the vessel sank within 20 minutes, a pitiful amount of time for the passengers to understand what was happening and escape from the interior. It didn’t even give the crew time to launch all the lifeboats.
The Salem Express started life as the Fred Scamaroni in 1965. She was owned by Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and ran the Marseilles-to-Corsica route. But before being brought into service she suffered a fire, which caused a great deal of damage and delayed the ship’s working life by 10 months.
She suffered another fire in 1970, but this was controlled, and repairs took only a couple of weeks.
In 1980 the ship was bought by a Dutch company, renamed Nuits St George, and ran from Ramsgate to Dunkirk as a passenger ferry, but her time in the English Channel didn’t last long. It was an unpopular route and the service stopped only four months later.
She wound up in Egypt, first operating between Aqaba and Suez under several names before being called the Salem Express in 1988 by her final owner, Samatour. It is that company’s “S” surrounded by laurel leaves that adorns her funnels.
Salem Express usually ran the Jeddah-to-Suez route. Engineering problems had delayed her last sailing by a couple of days, so the passengers and crew were no doubt eager to get into port.
It wasn’t the captain’s first time running the southern route. It saved a couple of hours’ sailing time and he knew the waters well. But that fateful night he hadn’t realised he was out of position.
The official figures record that 649 people went into the water that night and only 180 survived, but anecdotal reports put the passenger numbers much higher.
Reports say that 117 bodies were recovered, so the Salem Express is the largest peacetime marine grave in the Red Sea.
DIVING THE WRECK
On a day much calmer than when the ferry sank, I could see the side of the Salem Express a mere 9m below our dive-boat. The huge slab of the ship’s side seems to go on forever, certainly past the edge of visibility.
The wreck lies in 32m on its starboard side and on a 90° list, which is disorientating at first. Everything you expect to be below you is actually to the side. The walkways and deck are all vertical, and it took me a while to get my bearings.
In life this was, for a ferry, quite a pretty ship. She had had a hard life, however, and I’m sure the corrugated-iron roof and rust-marks detracted from her graceful lines as she sailed out of Jeddah harbour.
Now, everything that was distasteful to the eyes has gone, and what you see is a passenger ship with rows of windows, a pointed bow and a graceful stern. Everything you expect of a vessel.
The Red Sea continues its slow progress of claiming the wreck and coral is still growing, although not as fast as you might expect.
The top and hull are still relatively clean of hard coral growth, and the topside has only moderate growth.
The aft deck retains some of its wooden decking, and everything else is intact. Fire-hoses, ropes, cables, lines – everything you’d expect to find on a working ship is there.
There is plenty around the midships area to satisfy curiosity. Inside the many rooms several giant moray eels now live, and they often follow divers out into the open. Whether they are curious about the dive-lights or whether someone has fed them I don’t know, but they didn’t seem that interested in us, so perhaps they had just been disturbed by the bubbles and wanted to change room.
Swimming through the walkways and around the midships section is always a thrill. Sometimes, in the warm summer months, it is possible to find a frogfish hunting among the ropes and paraphernalia of the bridge section.
Below here on the seabed are the pair of lifeboats. They are date-stamped “1953”, and so predate the ship by more than a decade, and must have come from another vessel. Not that it matters, because they were never used and never will be. They just lie there, one propped precariously against the other.
Close by sits what I originally took to be a cassette player, but now believe to be an early Atari 2600 games console.
It was quite an old device even in 1991, but will never be played again. Perhaps it was a gift for a son, or perhaps the owner was on the ship – we will never know.
Entering the ship is a difficult choice. It is the last resting place of many people, but I believe that, as when entering any graveyard, if you go about it respectfully the inside is as fascinating as the outside.
For many years divers had access to the bridge and cafeteria, and these were popular places for the more experienced. But sometime around 2006, the rear door opened.
As with many aspects of life in Egypt, there is some controversy about how this happened. Perhaps the rear doors did pop open during the sinking and natural causes broke the hinges and the door fell off. Or maybe a liveaboard tied onto it and ripped it off. No-one seems to know.
The result, however, is that this is now a much easier place for a penetration dive. The interior could be accessed before, but only by highly experienced divers with the right kit and training.
It is still a place for very experienced divers, but the entry and exit points are far easier to find and access.
Swimming into the large stern-hold entrance, I found the Salem’s cavernous car-deck stuffed with the trappings of Egyptian life.
Rolls of blankets, the odd bicycle and suitcases cover the starboard wall, having fallen there when the ship rolled over. They look as if they were left there yesterday.
Some of the suitcases have burst open and some, it is obvious, have been opened. I’ll never understand what makes a human sink so low below the level of decency and open the dead’s possessions, but then I was brought up to respect others – alive and dead.
The girl’s dress is a fair way inside. It may have been floating around and caught on the roof of the hold, but I’m convinced it was placed there.
Whether it was found on top in the morass of possessions or was dug out of a suitcase I don’t know. It provided a sharp kick in the groin of compassion for my fellow man, and left a tear in my eye.
There are wrecks around the world that have their icons: the “Lady” statue inside the first-class dining saloon on the ss President Coolidge off Vanuatu; the skull embedded in the bulkhead of the Yamagiri Maru in Truk Lagoon; and the Marconi radio-room inside the Rose Castle in Newfoundland.
These wreck icons are now joined by the child’s dress in the Salem Express. All who cast your eyes upon it, please say a few words of remembrance through your regulators.
Gavin Parsons stayed at the Roots Camp about an hour south near El Quseir, from which the Salem Express dive is run as a special one-day safari. The wreck can also be dived from liveaboards. The Scuba Place can arrange holidays at the Roots Camp, 0207 644 8252, www.thescubadivingplace.co.uk